Are You Part of the “Worried Well?”

Do you worry about your health? Would you say you’re pretty healthy?That’s how neurologist and author Robert Burton, M.D., began our conversation about the “worried well”—people who are basically healthy but worry that they’re not doing everything they should be to stay well.(I answered yes to both questions.)QUIZ: Stressed Much?I’m not alone. “The worried well is most of us,” says Burton. “It’s a normal state.” An educated, health-concerned and well-read bunch, the worried well often misinterpret normal symptoms as signs of larger problems.Take depression, for example.You’re watching TV when a depression commercial comes on asking if you experience sadness, lack of interest, trouble concentrating. (Oh, you do? You and everyone else.) With such a generic symptom list, the worried well may wonder if their daily ups and downs are signs of a mental health problem—which most likely isn’t the case.MORE: Guiding Your Way Through AnxietyCarol Greenwood, Ph.D., a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, works with older populations and finds many of the worried well among them. “They’re really concerned that any sign or symptom might suggest that they’re moving into an age-related disorder,” she says. Memory loss is one of the biggest triggers for this type of anxiety, where ordinary forgetfulness might be interpreted as an early sign of dementia.“The worried well often over-interpret the ordinary,” says Burton. Whether an irregular heartbeat or a forgotten appointment gives you a rush of anxiety, both are just par for the course. No second opinions or witty last words needed.YouBeauty Wellness Advisor Beth Ricanati, M.D., aims to help the worried well breathe easier. She encourages patients to focus on the big picture instead of beating themselves up about the details. “When we lose the big picture, we try to micromanage our health,” says Ricanati. “Is it really the blueberries that are so good or is it that they’re part of a bigger, well-balanced diet? It’s about the way these different substances interact together.”When we’re bombarded with questionably reliable headlines like, “The Blueberry Drink That Can Shrink Tumors,” or “The Secret to Eternal Youth? Try a Tomato,” it’s easy to believe that we’re choosing between life and death every time we push our shopping carts past the produce aisle.MORE: Which Type of Therapy is Right for You?What the news sources rarely explain is that there are plenty of other ways to get the same nutrients. “We end up studying single foods in isolation because it’s the only way we can design a good experiment,” says Greenwood, noting that this often skews our perspective. “There’s no question that blueberries have a lot of antioxidants, but we ignore all the other fruits and vegetables that also do. A healthy diet is more than just a blueberry.”Believing that eating blueberries is all it takes to be your family’s first centenarian is a seductive proposition. “Everybody wants that magic bullet,” says Ricanati. “Is it vitamin D? Is it acai? That [search] is not really practical at the end of the day.”MORE: 10 Vitamin Myths, BustedRecently, Burton had a conversation with a 72-year-old Harvard law school graduate (a really smart guy, by all accounts). Every day, he goes mountain biking for two hours then goes hiking then plays basketball then does yoga. (Whew!) When asked how he feels, he says, “I’m f—ing exhausted.” (No kidding.) He has no free time and his legs feel like concrete, but still he perseveres. “His whole goal in life is to live longer,” says Burton, who points out that we all eventually lose that battle.Ricanati would rather people focus on living well, rather than living longer. “You can only do so much,” she says. “You can control whether you remember to pack your lunch or if you stop at McDonald’s. But if you’re worrying about whether you took your twenty vitamins, I think you’re missing the big picture. Sitting down to dinner with your family or thanking the gardener is just as important for your overall wellness.” In other words, don’t miss the present because you’re busy freaking out about the future.GALLERY: Yoga Poses to Boost MoodFollow these quick tips to alleviate health anxiety:1. Know your body. “You need a general understanding of your body,” says Burton. He recommends taking an introductory anatomy course or subscribing to a trusted newsletter like the Harvard Health Letter. “Over time, you’ll build up a fact base and that will help you know when to worry.”2. Limit your supplements. If you already have a healthy diet, then taking a handful of supplements every morning can be overload. “You can get into the toxic range, over and above the upper limit of intake,” says Greenwood. Instead, ask your doctor before taking a supplement and focus your energy on eating a healthy, balanced diet.3. Keep your self-talk positive. We’re constantly reminded of our health, so worrying is natural. Instead of telling yourself that your headache is probably a brain tumor, take a breath. “The healthy state is to be able to tell yourself, that’s just me worrying,” says Burton.4. Ignore the headlines. “If you read the sensationalist headlines every day, then today it would be blueberries and tomorrow it would be something else,” says Ricanati. “You’d drive yourself mad.” Instead, take a more moderate approach. “Try to get all your nutrients through food, be mindful of your physical activity, remember to use your breath.” In short: Be reasonable.5. Don’t worry about the details. “The worried well are more likely to pick up a tomato and worry about whether it counts as one or two servings,” says Greenwood. Instead, she recommends looking at your plate to make sure that most of it is filled up with fresh fruits and vegetables. No need to get any more obsessive than that.QUIZ: Satisfied With Your Life? 

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